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Remember This? Frank Amyot and the Berlin Olympics

Canada's only gold medalist at the controversial Olympic Games in 1936 was an Ottawa canoeist.
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Frank Amyot, Olympic Gold Medalist, 1,000 Metre Sprint Canoe, Berlin 1936, Library and Archives Canada, PA-050285.

OttawaMatters.com, in partnership with the Historical Society of Ottawa, brings you this weekly feature by Director James Powell, highlighting a moment in the city's history.

August 8, 1936

Canada sent 97 competitors to Berlin -- 79 men and 18 women, competing in 69 events in 12 sports. The team's performance was disappointing. It garnered only nine medals—one gold, three silver and five bronze, and ranked 17th among participating nations. Canada's only gold medalist at the Summer Games was Ottawa's Frank Amyot who won the men’s C-1 1,000 metre, single-man sprint canoe race held at the regatta course at Grünau on the Langer See situated on the south-east outskirts of Berlin.

Amyot had been the favourite to win the event. The 32-year-old was a veteran canoeist, and six times the Canadian Canoe Association’s Senior Singles Champion. 

He won his first title in 1923 while rowing for the Rideau Canoe Club. He later competed for the Britannia Boating Club. As the most senior and experienced member of the eight-man paddling team selected to represent Canada in the Olympics, Amyot was chosen as the team’s captain and coach. 

The other members of the team included Gordon Potter, F. Dier, Stan Potter, and Frank Wills from the Gananoque Canoe Club and Bill Williamson, Harvey Charters and Warren Saker from the Balmy Beach Club, Toronto. Charters and Saker also went on to win medals at the regatta course at Grünau, capturing the silver medal in the men’s C-2 10,000 metres, two-man sprint canoe competition and the bronze medal in the men’s C-2 1,000 metres, two-man sprint canoe race.

Despite Amyot’s standing in the sport, the Canadian Olympic Committee did not contribute a penny towards his travel expenses to Germany. 

Indeed, the Canadian Olympic Committee initially refused to fund any of Canada’s paddlers, though it later coughed up a token $65 to each of the three Toronto-based canoeists following protests. The other paddlers were ignored. The reason is unclear. True, money was tight that year. The Depression was still underway. The federal government had provided only $10,000 to the Canadian Olympic Committee to help fund Canada’s participation in both the Winter and Summer Games. 

But one would have thought that some dollars would have been allocated to cover Amyot’s expenses as he was widely regarded as Canada’s best chance to win a gold medal. The Canadian Olympic Committee also had the gall to charge Amyot $8 for his white-trimmed, crimson Canadian team blazer; Amyot refused to pay.

To help cover travel expenses, estimated at about $500 for each of the eight-man paddling team, the Canadian Canoe Association contributed $800. The remaining funds had to be arranged privately. 

The Britannia Boat Club organized a fundraiser for Frank Amyot, including selling reproduction prints of the painting "The Bluenose" at $1 per copy, with the proceeds to be given to the canoeist. A professional tennis tournament held at Ottawa’s Auditorium in April 1936 also turned over part of the gate to the Britannia Boat Club to help cover Amyot’s costs. The Army and Navy Veterans’ Association, for which Amyot worked, also provide considerable financing for his journey.

With the support of friends, family, and community, Canada’s Olympic team, including the eight paddlers, set sail in mid-July from Montreal to Le Havre in France on the SS Duchess of Bedford. The team spent a day in Paris sightseeing before taking a train for Berlin.

Frank Amyot’s big race took place on August 8, 1936 at the Grünau regatta course. 

As there were only six contestants, there were no heats. According the Evening Citizen, Amyot’s performance was “acclaimed as one of the finest ever witnessed in Europe.” Using a borrowed boat, he won gold in a time of 5 minutes 32.1 seconds over the 1,000-metre course, almost five seconds ahead of the second-place finisher, Bohuslav Karlik of Czechoslovakia, who Amyot had passed 100 metres from the finish line. Erich Koschik of Germany took the bronze medal.

When Amyot arrived back at the dock, the other members of the paddling team boosted their victorious captain on their shoulders and carried him back to the boathouse to the cheers of fans. 

Later, he received congratulatory telegrams from Prime Minister Mackenzie King and Ottawa’s Mayor Stanley Lewis. 

In a letter to Captain Gilman, his boss at the Army and Navy Veterans’ Association, Amyot wrote, "I must confess it was a very proud moment for me when I stood on the pedestal and watched the Canadian flag hoisted above all the flags of the world and watched over a hundred thousand people of all nationalities stand at attention while they played 'O Canada.'"

Amyot returned home a month later, sailing from Liverpool in England on the liner Montcalm to Montreal.  

Arriving at Union Station in Ottawa after his journey, he was greeted by cheering fans, civil officials, including Mayor Lewis, Commodore F. Skuce of the Britannia Boating Club and fellow paddlers. Also at the train platform were members of his family, including Bungo, his black and tan Gordon setter who almost knocked his master over in an enthusiastic welcome. The band of the Governor General’s Foot Guards and the Ottawa Boys’ Band played "The Conquering Hero Comes." Amyot was escorted to his home at 52 Maclaren by a parade and motorcycle outriders.

A few days later, he was feted at a gala celebration at the Chatêau Laurier Hotel by more than 250 sportsmen and government dignitaries. Amyot entered the ballroom dressed in his Canadian Olympic uniform of crimson and white to the strains of "He’s a Jolly Good Fellow" and "Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here."

Amyot gratefully thanked all those who made his trip to Germany possible, and presented an oak tree that had been given to him in Germany to Mayor Lewis. The Mayor accepted the gift voicing his hope that the tree "would grow as straight, strong and clean as its donor." In return, Mayor Lewis presented Amyot with a Royal Bank passbook containing more than $1,000 (worth more than $18,000 in today's money), the proceeds of a community-wide collection. Amyot expressed his gratitude and appreciation for the gift. Already a life-time member of the Britannia Boating Club, the sportsman was also made a lifetime member of eleven different boat and canoe clubs.

Frank Amyot, a member of Canada’s Olympic Hall of Fame and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, died of cancer in 1962. 

A photograph of Amyot and his trophies graces the stairwell of the Britannia Yacht Club in Ottawa.

The Berlin Games controversy

When the International Olympic Committee selected Berlin over Barcelona in 1931 as the host city for the Summer games of the 11th modern Olympiad to be held in 1936, nobody expected that Adolph Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party, a.k.a. the Nazis, would then be in power.

The Olympiad was to have been a public demonstration of the return of Germany into the fold of civilization nations—the Great War and its atrocities for which Germany and its ally Austria-Hungary were held responsible now relegated to history. Instead, the Games became an opportunity for the Nazis, who had just remilitarized the Rhineland a few months earlier, to show off Germany's new political and military vigour. More ominously, it was also an opportunity for the Nazis to demonstrate their warped racial belief in the supremacy of the so-called “Aryan” race, with the blond, blue-eyed Nordic subtype at the pinnacle, the so-called "master race" (the Herrenvolk).

By this time, the Nazis had already put into effect their "blood laws" which among other things made it illegal for an "Aryan" German to marry a Jew or even to have a romantic affair with a Jew. German Jews were also stripped of their legal rights and were banned from many occupations and activities, including their participation in German sporting clubs. Also, under harsh eugenic laws, those deemed "life, unworthy of life," which included the mentally handicapped, sufferers of hereditary disorders and severe physical handicaps, and homosexuals, were sterilized, or worse, killed. The purpose was to improve the German gene pool. The corollary of this was the encouragement of those of pure Aryan stock to breed. Girls deemed racially pure were essentially turned into brood mares in SS-run stud farms—the Lebensborn e.V.

Needless to say, given the Nazis' growing oppression, especially of Jews, Germany's hosting of the Olympic Games was controversial. 

Owing to pressure from the International Olympic Committee and the United States, Hitler allowed Jews to participate in the Games. The German sporting federation included a token Jew on the German Olympic summer team—26-year old Helene Meyer who later gave the Nazi salute when she won the silver medal for women’s fencing. Meyer had left Nazi Germany in 1935 to settle in the United States but returned temporarily to Germany for the Summer Games.

This tokenism was enough for the IOC to close its eyes to what was going on in Germany. 

In April 1936, the President of the IOC, Count Henri de Baillet-Letour, said the Winter Olympics, which were also held in Germany, had been a great success and that there been many Jewish athletes including on Germany’s team. He said, "The Nazi question has no connection with sports at the Olympic Games." 

Some countries and athletes were not convinced, and a "Peoples’ Olympiad" was organized for late July in Barcelona, just days prior to the start of the official Olympic Summer Games in Berlin. However, as athletes from 22 countries, including the Soviet Union, which did not participate in the official Olympic Games at that time, assembled in Barcelona, the Spanish Civil War began. The Peoples’ Olympiad was cancelled.

Despite concerns about Hitler’s Germany, almost 4,000 athletes from 49 countries and territories participated in the Summer Games held during the first two weeks of August 1939 in Berlin. 

Germany pulled out all the stops, shelling out millions for a huge new stadium and an athletes’ village. The games were the first to be broadcast live over television though few people had sets to watch them. Anti-Jewish signs were temporarily removed for the occasion. 

The Nazis’ aim was to impress and reassure the tens of thousands of foreign visitors. They were going to present to the world the illusion that Germany was an open, tolerant society. The games were a propaganda coup, and were recorded for posterity by Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favourite film maker.

The opening parade of nations was a cause of angst for many of the athletes. Should they give the Nazi salute to honour Hitler, or not? Some apparently opted for the Olympic salute which was similar. The Olympic salute is made by holding the right arm straight with the hand outstretched with the fingers together. The arm is held high and at an angle to the right from the shoulder. To make the Nazi salute, one raises the arm straight forward. Both are variants of the ancient Roman salute. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of confusion.

News reports immediately after the opening ceremonies claimed that the Canadian team gave the Nazi salute, which won them an enthusiastic response from the predominantly German audience. 

Later reports suggested that the Canadians had actually given a "half-Nazi salute," or the Olympic salute, with an "eyes right." However, this may have been just after-the-fact revisionism to avoid embarrassment. The Chairman of the Canadian Olympic team claimed “It wasn’t actually the Nazi salute, "The outstretched right hands of the Canadians pointed skyward rather than forward. It was merely a salute toward Herr Hitler." 

Other teams left no confusion. The British and Australian teams made only an "eyes right," while the American team held their hats over their hearts while giving an "eyes right." 

Given its close similarity to the Nazi salute, the Olympic salute was abandoned in 1948.




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